By Susan Hayden —
Who could have guessed the changes to be wrought at Indian Wells Elementary School since its inception ten years ago?
In a recent chat with Linda Yazzie, current president of the Holbrook Unified School District Governing Board, she recalled that for several years many parents within the Navajo Reservation portion of the Holbrook School District had wanted a school to be built closer to their homes. The crowded bus ride into town and the limited bus routes were ex-tremely inconvenient for the children and their families. Concerned parents discussed the idea that a new high school might meet their needs. However at that time, the thought of two high schools in one small rural school district raised the concern of rivalry instead of unity. They agreed that we must be in harmony in educating our children.
More busses and expanded bus routes eased the problem of getting kids into town for school, but the amount of time involved continued to make going to school in the Holbrook district an obstacle for many children and their families.
In 1991, Eula C. Yazzie, a Navajo Nation council delegate, persuaded Richard Begay to return from Phoenix and help her work toward the establishment of a school at Indian Wells. Because land had already been set aside in 1974 by the Navajo Tribe for educational development in the area, Begay began communication with tribal leaders in Window Rock for the necessary permissions to build. He also made contact with the Holbrook School District for assistance in launching an elementary school at Indian Wells. A grant of $45,000 from the Navajo Tribe in 1997, directed by the Southwest Public School Steering Committee of Indian Wells, allowed preliminary archeological surveys and ethno-graphic studies to be conducted, even though funding for the building itself had not yet been found.
Because extended bus rides to school are a common problem in rural areas of our state, the Arizona School Facilities Board (ASFB) established a “geographic exception” policy in 2000, which made funds available for new school con-struction through the Students FIRST (Fair and Immediate Resources for Students Today) program.
Alfred Clark, Indian Wells Chapter House president at the time, recalls that Dr. Phil Geiger, then-director of the ASFB, and other representatives traveled up to the Indian Wells Chapter House on Oct. 30, 2000, to hold a public hear-ing with the purpose of deciding whether a new school was warranted for students in this sparsely populated area. Jesse Thompson of the Navajo County Board of Supervisors was among those who spoke on behalf of the people in support of the proposed school.
Clark remembers, “The weather was good when the state people traveled up from Phoenix, but I think the project was still unsettled when the meeting ended and they left to go back. But the weather had turned bad. It was snowing and the livestock was on the road (because the land was all open range). The next day, they called me and said that the deci-sion was a no-brainer. Indian Wells needed the school.”
Begay says, “I think we got help from above for this miracle.”
Heartened by having money for building, other obstacles were faced with hope and confidence. Councilwoman Yaz-zie, called a “driving force” by Begay, obtained a grant to find a solution to the problem of the shifting low ground in the vicinity, as well as that of getting potable water to the area designated for the school. A water line between Greasewood and Dilkon already existed; the issue was running a connection a quarter of a mile from the established line to the school site. According to Begay, the Babbitt family of Flagstaff owns land between the water line and the school location. “They were very generous to us,” he stated, allowing the water line across their property in support of the school. The state of Arizona gave its approval of the water line, which was then endorsed by the Navajo Tribe, leading to the grant-ing of a 75-year lease to the Holbrook School District.
Clark commented that Begay seemed to gain the necessary clearances “in record time,” affirming that the school was meant to be. After talking with Begay, it appears that record time involves years of record-breaking effort laying groundwork and serving as liaison between the council, various state agencies, school districts, families and other inter-ested parties.
Groundbreaking for the new To’hahadleeh Elementary School took place on Oct. 19, 2001. Because the medicine man was unable to attend the program, Supervisor Thompson was asked to give the invocation. He was handed a shovel for, in his words, “planting the seed for new growth.” He handed the shovel off to a child who attended the ceremony and who dug the first spade of dirt.
Members of the Holbrook School District Governing Board, the first Arizona public school district to build a school on a tribal reservation, were President Alfred Clark, Vice President Merrill Young, and members Ferral Knight, Linda Salabye Yazzie and Sandra Bradley, board members. Begay served as special liaison throughout the entire process of establishing the school. Timothy Foist was the district superintendent and Mary Koury, the assistant superintendent.
Editor’s note: This series will continue in the June 20 edition of the newspaper.